The seven Chinese nationals who were kidnapped Sunday in Iraq by an unidentified armed group have been released, RFA reports. The men were abducted Sunday in the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah and freed late Monday, China�s official Xinhua news agency said.

China�s Foreign Ministry identified the men as Xue Yougui, Lin Jinping, Li Guiwu, Li Guiping, Wei Weilong, Chen Xiaojin, and Lin Kongming. All are natives of the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, and they came from farming communities in Pingtan county, official media said.

Chinese Embassy officials in Jordan said that seven Chinese passport-holders had entered Iraq from Jordan early Monday and that they were likely the same men who were later abducted and are now held at an undisclosed location in Fallujah, in central Iraq.

The men had gone overseas for �private purposes,� Xinhua quoted a Fujian trade official as saying. No Fujian laborers are currently working in Iraq on government-sponsored contracts, the official said, adding that all laborers working in Iraq had returned before the war.

The men, aged between 18 and 49, are thought to have been seized by gunmen on a highway on their way to Fallujah, which has been the scene of fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents in recent days.

However, Al Arabiya TV channel�s Baghdad bureau said news of the seven kidnapped Chinese emerged following interviews with a group of foreign nationals released by kidnappers Sunday. The unidentified foreigners told the reporter that they met seven Asian persons with Chinese passports detained in a room in a secret location.

Gunmen in Iraq have also abducted other foreign nationals, including three Japanese civilians seized by a group threatening to burn them alive if Japan does not withdraw its non-combat troops from Iraq. Sunday�s deadline came and went with no word on their fate. Six South Koreans were also abducted last week but were later released unharmed.

Before the U.S.-led attack that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, China had called for a political solution instead of war. Beijing, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, once described its relations with Saddam�s government as warm. More recently, Beijing has advocated sending a U.N. team back to Iraq to help restore stability.

The kidnappings are likely to further increase pressure on U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, whose weeklong Asian visit takes in Japan, South Korea, and China, just as kidnappers appear to be targeting citizens of those countries. Cheney praised Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi�s refusal to comply with the kidnappers� demands during his visit to Japan on Sunday.

Cheney heads to Beijing on Tuesday, a trip originally scheduled for a year ago then postponed because of developments in the Middle East and the war on terror.

Japan has deployed some 550 troops to the southern Iraqi city of Samawa for humanitarian work, despite widespread opposition on grounds that the deployment violates the country�s post-war pacifist constitution. South Korea has said it still plans to send more than 3,000 troops to Iraq.

Both governments face mounting domestic protests against their deployment plans. In South Korea, the issue has appeared during campaigning for parliamentary elections on April 15�the day Cheney lands in Seoul.

Cheney is expected to reassure leaders in all three countries that occupying forces in Iraq will transfer power to Iraqis on June 30 as scheduled. #####


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